Most girls don’t venture below the waist. They play at it and they feel safe with me. She was the exception on all three counts.
She fastened her denim shorts and curled a hand across her stomach. Her shirt was drawn over the hungry yawn of her ribs and knotted above her belly button. Her clothes shrugged on her and she in them, as if they didn’t need each other—and wasn’t that the truth.
What we had was already drifting away through the long grass, past the maiden’s tears and sweet peas. I ran a finger up her silk-ribboned thigh, but she shied away, tilting the swell of her hips like a violinist angling the bow.
In childhood, she’d have been the kid with the torn dungarees, her knees a lime sheen from climbing trees. I could tell from the wisps of hair that fell from her ponytail, rained down the back of her neck, curled and dropped to her temples like a bass clef.
She’d have been that kid, alright. And she’d decided that if she had to grow out of that and into something else, it wouldn’t be this. No one had warned her and now I’d happened to her, like a car crash.
“Do you want to talk about it—about us?” The longing hum of crickets in the tall grass peeled my last two words, swallowed them whole.
“We’re friends, right?” She pressed a hand to her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun. A leather bracelet collared her wrist. A ring stretched from her knuckle almost to the tip of her middle finger—a great metal swear. All those heavy lines and shapes—they were her way of abridging herself. Her body was too much for her to handle. It was a siren to passers-by. It couldn’t be trusted to carry her without distraction. It gave her currency, though. With me. With all the boys.
She’d known what it would mean, to walk to the meadow with me. She’d dared herself because she’d wanted a taste. The furtive glance at my lips that she’d seen in all the movies, that she knew would do the trick. And it did. Now she was anxious beneath it all, I could tell. Not because she regretted it, but because she didn’t.
Oh sure, she could try to go back to those boys with their dripping aftershave. Their checked shirts and drainpipe jeans. Her best mates kept count of how many guys they’d been with that summer. And she wanted to keep pace with all that, I knew she did, but she was slipping away from it, and she was terrified.
“We should be getting back.” She leapt to her feet and tugged at the amulet chained around her neck.
I looped and tied the belt on my best jersey dress, grabbed my slingbacks and began to fasten the straps. My knees were red, criss-crossed and flecked sore with dusty grass, my voice dry and low. “It’s hard enough for me, you know, without people like you…”
She shrugged. “What do you mean, people like me?”
I stood now, squared up to her. “You have a choice. Be here, in this meadow. Or go back there. Fit in. Wear your daisy dukes. Swap marshmallow lip gloss. Get average grades. You’re not gonna try, because you know it’s not you doing this, any of this. Not really. It’s like you’ve had your hand in a glove your whole life, and you can’t feel anything through it.”
“You’re so clever—the things you say.” She squeezed her eyelashes between thumb and forefinger, fixing her mascara.
She didn’t understand. Or she didn’t want to. And I’d tried not to dwell on it too much, because it was her, after all—and the almond perfection of her up close was more than a little dazzling. I’d spent so long wearing this pocket version of her—thumbing the edges of the clay—that the real thing was unwieldy. Too sharp in places, too soft in others.
I couldn’t have given her any more than this, I knew that. No one could. She’d spend twenty years running from everything and then another twenty chasing after it. She’d think I was the experiment, until she realised that the rest of it had been.
She began to walk away, sable speech marks in the backs of her knees. She’d meet the boys down on the path and I could all but see one ready to step forward and light her cigarette, his calloused hand in the small of her back.
“You know what? You tell yourself whatever you want. Get married. Have kids. Instagram your dinner.” I was shaking so much that the ground tipped beneath me. “You expect me to fight it for you. You’re gonna come out when it’s all safe?” I cracked a brittle smile. “Maybe you’ll leave him, or maybe you’ll take it to your grave.”
She stopped still, flicked each chalk-white fingernail with her thumb.
My breath flared red in my lungs. “But you’ll remember this day, you know, that you were real here, in this meadow.”
And then—her back still turned—finally, a glimpse of her. “It’s a hard road.”
It almost broke her to say it.
“So, set out early.” I’d parried too soon. Jumped the gun. Spent my chance.
But she turned back to me—all bright, salty, aching flesh—and reached out her hand.
Victoria Bird studied literature at the University of Cambridge in the UK and now lives in Cambridge with her family. She is currently editing her debut novel on the subject of infidelity and was published in Ellipsis Zine’s flash anthology in February. An incorrigible people-watcher, she is often to be found in a coffee shop, sipping chai lattes and scribbling notes. Victoria can be found at http://www.victoriabird.net or on Twitter @VNBird.